May 12 was a day to celebrate a brighter future for 1,631 graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American as well as for their families, the Rio Grande Valley and the nation.
"It (an education) is something you will always have, you can't lose it, and no one can take it," he said. "The bottom line is that knowledge, fulfillment, self-awareness and broadening of horizons associated with education transforms lives - the lives of students and the lives of those with whom they live and work. And it will transform the Valley."
Nelsen said as a result of the recent VISTA Summit on Education hosted by the University, where some of the country's most powerful foundations were invited to invest in the future of the Valley and its people, UTPA graduates will have an important role to play.
"You will walk out today as role models and mentors for so many people, many who aspire to be college graduates like you. You must remember that responsibility. Help them. Don't forget to reach back and be there at all times," he said. "By making the most of what you are taking away from this University, will help to make that difference."
Nelsen also saluted the nearly 1,700 veterans who have graduated since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began by having them stand at each ceremony.
At the 9 a.m. ceremony for the graduates in the Colleges of Science and Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science and Social and Behavioral Sciences, State Senator José Rodríguez (BA '71) told the graduates and their family members that the memories and lessons he learned at Pan Am have been instrumental in every part of his life.
"My professors reinforced my love of learning and my drive to succeed; I am grateful for the opportunities I was offered at this institution," he said.
"For her, success was me getting a job where I could wear a white shirt," he said.
Rodriguez, who got his bachelor's degree in political science, went on to earn a law degree from George Washington University School of Law and has had a 37-year legal career as a staff attorney for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in private practice and at the Texas Rural Legal Aid.
As the student body president at Pan Am in the days of intense struggle for equality for Hispanics, he recalled the inspiration he gained from civil rights leader César Chávez.
"He understood the value of education and the individual effort," Rodríguez said.
Rodríguez said today the future of Texas will be increasingly determined by minority populations, particularly Hispanics, and how well they do educationally and economically. However, he said there are too many people who cannot embrace change.
"Too many people, including those in control of the Legislature, cling to old ways, dated priorities, and bygone beliefs. They fail to understand that each generation remakes itself, standing on the shoulders of the giants before them. As it was with the Irish, the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, and others, so it will be with Latinos, all unique and all uniquely American," he said. "The 'New Texas' must continue to be a place of opportunity for all."
He asked the graduates to begin tackling the many challenges the border regions face - attracting new industry to increase the tax base, increasing the access to health care for the underserved area, and facilitating adequate public school financing.
"The challenges are endless, as is your potential, and you are limited only by your dreams and imagination," Rodríguez said. "It is time to take that next step and work to improve the world we live in."
Frances Morales, a graduate assistant in The Rafael A. "Felo" & Carmen Guerra Honors Program at The University of Texas-Pan American, who graduated with her master's degree in psychology at the first ceremony, said she owed a lot to the University, where she developed her interest in research and a goal of becoming a college professor.
In August, Morales will start a fully-funded doctoral program in developmental psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, where her mentor will be UT Austin's Dean of Graduate Studies. She was one of only two students accepted nationwide in a program that is ranked among the top 15 in the United States and has a applicant acceptance rate of less than 5 percent.
She said conducting research and becoming a professor never crossed her mind until she came to UTPA.
"Professors here are very warm and open and really want to help you and see you go places and do bigger and better things," said Morales, who also noted the significant financial assistance she received at UTPA. "Many people are not aware that there is a lot of help here for school. I have a graduate assistantship, before this, a teaching assistantship. And this year I have received three different scholarships."
Morales also proudly announced that her mother Rachel, will graduate in December 2012 with a bachelor's degree in the same field as hers - psychology.
"And she plans to go on and get her master's too," she said.
At the 1 p.m. ceremony, Dr. Dana Gonzalez (BS '98), an obstetrician/gynecologist based in Victoria, told graduates about the challenges she faced as a single mother pursuing a bachelor's degree at UTPA and then a medical degree from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
With the help of family and friends she persevered, becoming the only Mexican-American bilingual OB-GYN in the Victoria area.
Gonzalez congratulated graduates and said their degrees are "a great tool" that will help them start their careers and continue their education. She also urged them to surround themselves with people who will encourage them through their endeavors and avoid those who discourage them.
Dr. Daniel King (BS '76, MEd '77), superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD), delivered the final keynote address at the 5 p.m. ceremony, where he challenged graduates of the Colleges of Business Administration and Education to become leaders and problem solvers in their communities.
King told graduates about his start in the education field. Much like today, King graduated college at a time when the economy took a downturn and few jobs were available. After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees from then Pan American University in just five years, King sought a teaching and coaching job at school districts throughout the Valley.
After receiving rejections from other school districts, Hidalgo Independent School District hired him on as a teacher in their new high school. King went on to become principal of the school, then superintendent of that district, then superintendent of PSJA ISD. He is responsible for transforming both districts into successful school systems.
His advice to graduates was to continue to prepare themselves, don't wait for the perfect job and take what opportunities come to them, and to give their best in whatever job they have.
"You are in the right place at the right time," King said. "The Valley needs more leaders and problem solvers, and you are in a great position to fill that need."
Jorge Armando Morales and Patrick Martinez, who both graduated with a bachelor's degree in rehabilitation counseling, said they were grateful to the faculty members who prepared them to help people in the Rio Grande Valley who struggle with addiction.
Michael Mosgrove, who earned his Master of Social Work, said he continued his education at UTPA because it was an outstanding university that was close to his home in Sebastian and it provided him another way to continue serving the Hispanic community.
Mosgrove, who ran a ministry for many years before returning to school, said his studies at UT Pan American provided him with great internship opportunities, including one he recently completed assessing after-school programs at Santa Rosa ISD. He also gained experience in writing grants.
"One of the things I appreciated was being around people, especially mentors, who gave me the tools I hadn't acquired after I graduated from (undergraduate) school," said Mosgrove, who earned his bachelor's degree in Indiana.
Mosgrove and Morales were just two of 390 graduates who earned an advanced degree Saturday. The number of students earning master's and doctoral degrees continues to increase, according to the Office of Graduate Studies. In the 2010-2011 academic year, about 24 percent of degrees awarded were advanced degrees.
Each ceremony concluded with a performance of "Eres Tú" ("It is You") by the UTPA Mariachi Atzlan in honor of Mother's Day, which was observed the following day.
See more of the graduation ceremonies and celebrations at the photo gallery.